Rule-break­ing puts up ma­jor hur­dles to im­prov­ing school meals

When prin­ci­pals al­low junk food sales, it’s tougher to get stu­dents healthy

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Bettina Elias Siegel

I’ll never for­get tour­ing one of Hous­ton ISD’s high schools back when my son was in eighth grade. Sit­ting in the school’s dark­ened au­di­to­rium, we and other prospec­tive fam­i­lies watched a video tout­ing the school’s virtues: top-notch aca­demics, a ro­bust sports pro­gram, a mul­ti­tude of clubs — and the fact that stu­dents could buy fast food lunches three times a week, brought in as a PTA fundraiser.

As an ad­vo­cate work­ing to im­prove HISD’s school food, my jaw dropped. Most cam­pus junk food sales were banned by fed­eral reg­u­la­tions in 2014, so I as­sumed the video was made by stu­dents who didn’t know bet­ter. Imag­ine my shock when the video ended and the prin­ci­pal him­self re­it­er­ated this il­le­gal sell­ing point for his school.

But this high school was hardly unique. Our cash-strapped schools have long re­lied on junk food sales to fund ex­tracur­ric­u­lar pro­grams like field trips, the se­nior prom or send­ing a team to a tour­na­ment. One third of Texas kids may be over­weight or obese, but it’s still easy to ra­tio­nal­ize the prac­tice. Af­ter all, kids do need these pro­grams, and by the time some of them de­velop weightre­lated diseases — by the time they need in­sulin or am­pu­ta­tions — they’ll be long out of HISD.

Maybe that’s why some prin­ci­pals have been so cav­a­lier about break­ing the law. Even be­fore 2014, when Texas had its own state pol­icy rein­ing in school junk food, prin­ci­pals gen­er­ally knew in ad­vance when their cam­puses would be au­dited. Brisk sales of Chick-Fil-A, soda and candy would pre­dictably come to a halt,

only to re­sume once the au­dit was over.

Even when the state did is­sue a fine, many prin­ci­pals re­garded the penalty as the cost of do­ing busi­ness — one that paled in com­par­i­son to the thou­sands of dol­lars raised by ped­dling junk food. Some schools even got away scot-free af­ter be­ing caught in the act. In 2013, when eight Hous­ton high schools were fined a to­tal of $73,000 for il­le­gal junk food sales, they marched up to Austin and some­how got the fines re­voked. I’m told that, to this day, one of those prin­ci­pals has the re­ver­sal or­der proudly framed in his of­fice.

Un­for­tu­nately, not much has changed since 2014. Our schools still need money, sell­ing junk food is a sure-fire way to raise it, and many prin­ci­pals aren’t de­terred by the threat of fines. So why should any­one now con­sider chang­ing course? Two words: Betti Wig­gins. You may not know that name, but in school food cir­cles, Wig­gins is some­thing of a liv­ing leg­end. When peo­ple in those cir­cles heard she’d signed on as HISD’s new school food di­rec­tor, I kept get­ting con­grat­u­la­tory emails, like my en­tire district had just won the lot­tery.

Why all the fuss? Wig­gins is cred­ited with trans­form­ing the school meals in Detroit, which she ac­com­plished by ditch­ing the “car­ni­val food,” in­creas­ing serv­ings of fruits and veg­eta­bles, boost­ing lo­cal food pur­chas­ing and launch­ing a gar­den­ing pro­gram. She’s brim­ming with en­thu­si­asm and fresh ideas, and has the po­ten­tial to make Hous­ton’s school food a model for the en­tire na­tion.

But if junk food sales con­tinue un­abated, Wig­gins’s job will be ex­po­nen­tially harder. For one thing, ev­ery dol­lar spent on junk food is a dol­lar that could have gone into her pro­gram. Un­law­ful fundrais­ing also forces the cafe­te­ria to com­pete with fast food chains for chil­dren’s palates. That’s a tall or­der even for Wig­gins, who, for good rea­son, can’t use un­lim­ited salt, sugar and fat in her food.

If we want Wig­gins to suc­ceed, we all have to be­come her part­ners. Our school board should an­nounce a new era in HISD, one in which il­le­gal junk food sales will no longer be tol­er­ated. Prin­ci­pals must heed that call and stop con­don­ing these sales on their cam­puses. And par­ents and stu­dent groups need to get more cre­ative in their fundrais­ing. Putting out donuts and a cash box may be easy, but other dis­tricts have proven that non-food fundrais­ing can still be prof­itable. Plus, Texas per­mits six “ex­empt” days a year when schools can fundraise with any type of food.

Even those out­side HISD can help. Are you a phil­an­thropic Hous­to­nian who cares about kids’ health? Why not prom­ise to pay for a school’s an­nual fundrais­ing needs — in exchange for the prin­ci­pal’s pledge to end junk food sales?

We re­ally did just win the school food lot­tery, Hous­ton, so let’s not squan­der our prize. The time has come to fi­nally put an end to il­le­gal, un­healthy fundrais­ing. Be­cause Wig­gins can’t do her job un­less we all do our part, too.

Siegel is a mem­ber of the HISD School Health Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil and blogs about chil­dren and food pol­icy at www.thelunch­tray.com.

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

First-graders en­joy a meal at Port of Hous­ton Ele­men­tary School in 2013.

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